Great men have been compared to Janus, the Roman god. On the one hand, they face back towards the past, and sum up in their personality the accumulated culture of the ages. Yet their gaze is turned towards the promise of the days to come, and they already see in their hearts the vision of a richer, fuller life. In them, the past with all its strife and endeavour and achievement, its success and its failure, seeks a full and final synthesis; in them the future with its hopes and fears, its aspiration, challenge and potency, lives a vivid, intense life. They stand, each solitary upon a peak in the ocean of time, and bathed in the radiance of their own inner light, they watch with calm and tranquil heart the panorama of the ages spread before their eyes.
Like all great men, Rammohun was also Janus-faced. To realise the greatness of the man, we have to understand the richness of the culture in which he was born, and foresee the splendor of the age he was to usher in. For, he comprehended in himself the wealth and variety of the culture which India had evolved: a rich and complex symphony woven of the mingled strains of Islam and the indigenous faiths, with the first faint murmurings of a newer tone which in the immediate future was destined to become a dominant note. A man is great, not merely by what, as an individual, he achieves himself, but also by the achievements of his forbears, which enable him to start from where they had left. Their failures are the pillars on which he builds the monument of his success.
It is therefore bad history and worse philosophy to condemn in unqualified terms the age in which Rammohun was born; his greatness itself is proof that there were elements of greatness incipient in the times. The first bitter struggles of Mussalman and Hindu were not only for the possession of India’s material wealth; it was also a conflict of cultures for the possession of India’s soul. On every plane of life and thought, – in dress and speech, in habits and conduct, in custom and religion,- the bitter fight was fought, till out of the clash at last was born a new culture which was neither purely Muslim, nor purely Hindu, for it contained within itself the elements of both. For, the tale of bitterness, of hatred and of clash was not the whole of the story. Hindu fought Mussalman on many a whole of the story, Hindu fought Mussalman on many a bloody field, but behind the noise and tumult of the war, great spirits worked patiently and silently to bridge the gulf which sought to separate the battling hosts. A common language had been newly forged, the eternal truths of faith were sought in common forms and from the chaos of conflicting ideals, a common code of life and manners had been slowly evolved. In the world of art, this Indo-Saracenic spirit found its type in the m arable marvel of the Taj. In the realm of personality it found one of its finest embodiments in Raja Rammohun Roy.
Rammohun’s greatness therefore is, that he summed up in himself the conflict and the synthesis of seven centuries. This is all the more remarkable when we remember that the process came to self-consciousness in him at a time when to the external view the cause of synthesis had already been lost. Kabir and Nanak had striven for the self-same end on the spiritual plane. Akbar, with all the majesty of genius, had strained every nerve to realise it in the political field, and a hundred nameless seers and singers had poured out their lives to bring the message to the common folk. And yet it seemed that they all had failed, that the forces against them had proved too strong. Rana Pratap of Mewar, heroic and noble, and yet narrow and unimaginative in his patriotism, was the first to rally the forces of reaction, and collect under his banner all the mass of age-long inertia and exclusiveness that sought to hinder the process of synthesis. Once the movement progress had received a cheek, impediment gathered. Aurungzeb was the natural sequel to Pratap, both equally admirable in their lifelong devotion to a cause, and both equally unimaginative in the choice of their mission of life.
Rammohun then appeared on the scene when the impulse towards unity had almost spent itself, and the memory of the effort was itself fading fast. In the reaction that followed, the general ebb of life all over the land had only enhanced and intensified the differences and distinctions between the communities and groups, which jutted like rocky islets that stud the floor of the sea after the retreat of a visit tidal wave. It was Rammohun’s endeavour to see unity in this variety, to find harmony among the discordant notes of warring sects, to realise the whole where others saw only broken and unrelated fragments.
Rammohun was peculiarly fitted, by heredity and upbringing, by his nature and temperament, for this Herculean task. The two great and conflicting schools of Hinduism, Vaishnava and sakta, were united in his birth, and yet training and environment from childhood made him almost a Mussalman in his mode of life. The background of Hinduism was in his blood, but his conscious life and conduct were shaped by this early impact of Islamic thought. Herein we find the significance of his rediscovery of the deepest truth in Man: the discovery of the principle of Unity which underlies and must underlie the religious life of all mankind. “There is no god but God” was stamped upon his consciousness, till it burnt away the dross of all customs and conventions, and brought him face to face with the Unity, lying deep down in the universe, – not the metaphysician’s abstract unity of concept, but the conviction born of the experience of the religious man.
Rammohun’s deep conversance with Islamic thought expressed itself not only in his external mode of living; it also supplied the basis and orientation of his intellectual and spiritual life. It was brought home to him that all religions are fundamentally the same, that God has spoken to all peoples of the earth in their own native speech, and sent them teachers from among their own flesh and blood. Manners and customs vary from age to age and from land to land, but the Spirit of God that expresses itself in man’s religious quest remains eternally the same, and the reformer’s task is only to seek for it preserves it and cherish it when it is found. The religious history of man all over the world is therefore nothing but the continual rediscovery of the One Eternal Truth, the deep unity of life in the universe that we call God.
Rammohun’s whole being responded to the unity of the Eternal One, and he sought to discover this call in the scriptures of his land. Deep study convinced him of the truth of his belief in the fundamental unity of all faiths, for he found in the Upanishads and the Gita the same spiritual message of the unity of God which the Quran had burnt into his consciousness. They also equally taught that the One remains, though the many change and pass. He realised that the idolatry and polytheism prevalent in the Hindusim of his times were mere excrescences, a later outgrowth impairing the purity of the original religious consciousness that found its embodiment in the Gita and the Upanishads. The expression of this conviction with all the zeal of a new discoverer led to his expulsion from home while yet in his teens, but nothing daunted, Rammohun ventured out into the world to prove for himself the truth of what he believed.
Later in life Rammohun came into contact with the Christian missionaries who brought to India the message of the Bible. With his deep conviction of the unity of God, he could not accept the theology of the official Christian church, but recognised in the life of Jesus an expression of the same fundamental spiritual truth. His discussion of the question of Trinity, which led to the conversion of a missionary to Unitarianism, has become classic, but behind all the sectarian distinctions and formalisms of organised churches, Rammohun saw the deep fervour and high ethical consciousness of the faith of Jesus. There, again, in the heights of spiritual attainment, he felt the human spirit worshipping at the altar of the One and Eternal God.
Convinced of the basic unity of all religious faiths, Rammohun expressed this his deepest conviction in the Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin, where he appealed to all Believers in One God to forget their differences in their deep agreement on this fundamental point. From then on, his life was one continuous effort to reconcile and explain the differences and distinctions of diverse faiths, to separate the core of spiritual truth in them from all the excrescences that had collected in the course of time, to distinguish truth from untruth, and free the human mind of the dogmas and prejudices that separate man from man. When at last he was led to found the Brahmo Samaj, he established it not as a fresh religion or a new dispensation, but as a religious fellowship where devout and earnest followers of all religions could meet together in the worship of “the One Being who is the fountain of the harmonious organisation of the universe”.
With his vast and deep scholarship, Rammohun was perhaps the first to plead for an impartial and enquiry into the nature and principles of the religious doctrines of different peoples, in order to find in all of them the same deep underlying unity. The founder of the comparative study of religion in the modern world, his work was throughout marked by unflinching love of truth which enabled him to rise above the superstitions of his race, the prejudices of his times, and even the bonds of personal predilection and habit. His pioneer work in the cause of education and intellectual co-operation of East and West, his endeavours on behalf of the freedom of the Press, his struggles for the rights of India’s womanhood and for emancipation from outworn and hampering social and religious customs, his heroic efforts for the political, economic and constitutional progress of his people, and his founding of a religious fellowship which was perhaps unique in history, – are all deeds for any one of which a leader deserves the gratitude of his nation and the world. But to Rammohun belongs a still greater glory, for in him there burnt a spirit that was greater than all his deeds, and made him the first true Indian in the fullest sense of the term.
A Brahmin of Brahmins, Rammohun was deeply versed in Sanskritic lore, and proclaimed the eternal truths enshrined in the scriptures of the Hindus. Among the Maulavis learned in Arabic and Persian, he was one of the most zabardast, and placed the whole emphasis of his life upon the declaration of the Unity of God. Among Christians, he spoke with the authority of a church divine, and interpreted a new life of Jesus so as to fit in with the religious experience of all mankind. The child of multiple cultures, with his unerring sense of truth he saw the unity underlying all of them, and with his unfailing courage he accepted the truth that he saw, and proclaimed it to all the world.
It was this quality of truth and courage which is the most distinctive character of Rammohun Roy. In spirit ever young, he dared to make experiments with his life, and follow unflinchingly wherever truth might lead. Always eager for flesh experiences, his whole life was a glorification of the spirit of Man, questing eternally to seek light in the depths of primeval dark, and to create out of chaos the beauty and order of the universe. In the India of alien communities, torn by the conflict of warring cultures, and at the parting of ways between the old and the new, Rammohun had the vision and the courage to see the greater unity enveloping all apparent clash, the expanse of personality to accommodate the old and the new, and the energy of spirit to comprehend the diverse elements in one final synthesis. He was the first citizen in the India of Akbar’s dreams.
By: Prof. Humayun Kabir